It was the early moments of the first scrimmage of Washington Capitals training camp, and Brooks Laich was skating with the puck near the faceoff circle to the left of the goaltender.
Laich didn’t brace for a quick shove from Viktor Kozlov, and he was knocked off his skates while Kozlov took off with the puck.
“He”s a big, strong man,” Laich said of the encounter.
At 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, Kozlov carves out quite a presence on the ice, and Laich found that out pretty quickly. Kozlov was one of three veteran additions for the Caps in the first days of the signing period in July, along with center Michael Nylander and defenseman Tom Poti.
Kozlov, a 32-year-old from Togliatti, Russia, signed a two-year, $5 million deal after spending last season with the New York Islanders, which included a career-high 25 goals.
While he has spent the first couple days of camp getting to know some of his new teammates, he certainly is acquainted with the training staff after being hit just below his left eye with the puck Friday. He was back practicing again yesterday but with a visor on his helmet.
“It is a good group of guys and a very high tempo in the practice,” Kozlov said. “I really like it. I am excited. It makes me feel young again.”
While Kozlov has the look of a hulking power forward, brute strength is far from all that stands out about his game. He was the sixth pick in the 1993 draft by the San Jose Sharks because of his combination of size and skill.
He has not been the consistently dynamic scorer he was projected to be coming out of Russia, but he has finished with at least 50 points in four of the past eight NHL seasons, including a career-high 70 with Florida in 1999-2000. Last season, he once scored six goals in a little more than 24 hours — potting two against Pittsburgh and his first career four-goal game against the Rangers the next night.
“He”s big, he”s tough and he has unbelievable hands. He”s a tremendous player,” said Alex Ovechkin, who skated on a line with Kozlov in the 2006 Olympics. “I was very happy [when we signed him] because I know him well. He is an unbelievable player and a very good guy in the locker room.”
Another of Kozlov”s strengths is his versatility. He can play either right wing or center, something that could prove valuable to the Caps as the season progresses and injuries happen.
Whether he starts the year on the right side or in the middle is not settled and probably tied directly to rookie Nicklas Backstrom. Kozlov likely would be called upon to the center the second line if Backstrom isn”t ready.
“He does a lot of the same things that [Dainius Zubrus] did well,” Laich said. “He can win battles against two, three guys. He”s a big power forward, and you just can”t take the puck off of guys like that. This year we want to play a puck protection game, a puck possession game — and that”s right up Kozie”s alley.”
Among the things Zubrus did well was mentor the team”s young Russians, Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. Since Kozlov and Ovechkin already have established a relationship from playing together in the Olympics and then working out together this summer, it seem like a natural role for Kozlov.
Should they play together on a line this season, it actually might be Ovechkin who helps Kozlov on the ice.
“When I played with Alex in the Olympics I was surprised with how much respect he got from the opposition”s defensemen,” Kozlov said. “For me, it gave me more room in the neutral zone and the offensive zone because of all the attention for Alex.”